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Grocery tax unpopular, but cutting it hasn’t been winner for politicians

Politicians’ efforts to eliminate or reduce Mississippi’s grocery tax have been unsuccessful despite what appears to be widespread support for doing so.

Various polls have found that a majority of Mississippians favor reducing or eliminating the state’s sales tax on groceries.

A Chism Strategies/Millsaps Poll earlier this year found that nearly 70 percent of Mississippians supported reducing or eliminating the tax. In 2006, 71 percent favored reducing the grocery tax and increasing the tax on cigarettes in a poll conducted by the Mellman Group.

But thus far politicians who have chosen to take up the cause of reducing the 7 percent tax have not fared well on a statewide level.

When Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s sole statewide elected Democrat, spoke at the kickoff of his gubernatorial campaign at the state’s Civil Rights Museum earlier this year, the third item he brought up was the sales tax on groceries.

“I want to see a rollback of the sales tax on food,” Hood said at the time. “It’s hard for families to make ends meet. Let’s make it easier to put food on the table.”

In 2011, then-Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, made reducing or eliminating the tax on groceries a central part of his campaign. He was convincingly defeated by current Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, though, there were other issues with the DuPree campaign, primarily the lack of money, that might have overshadowed his message on the grocery tax.

The most robust effort to reduce or eliminate the tax occurred in 2006 when then Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, broke with fellow Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, over the issue.

Tuck proposed first eliminating and then reducing the tax and offsetting the loss of revenue by increasing the tax on cigarettes, which at that time was 18 cents per pack, by far one of the lowest in the nation.

Two separate bills passed the Legislature that year dealing with the issue by veto proof margins. In each instance, Barbour vetoed the legislation and changed enough votes in Tuck’s Senate to uphold his veto.

The effort garnered Tuck a tremendous amount of good will in some quarters. But her effort left her weakened in the state’s Republican Party, controlled by Barbour. She never sought another political office, though, at one point many believed she could be the state’s first woman to be elected governor.

But instead she retired from politics.

Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, acquiesced in his second term to an increase in the tobacco tax, but the issue of reducing the tax on food was dropped.

He argued it was a fair and effective tax. Others disagree and say it is regressive – more of a burden on the poor. They argue everybody needs and buys certain groceries, yet, it takes a greater percentage of a poor person’s income to purchase a gallon of milk, for instance.

Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, is one of three states to levy the same sales tax on groceries as on other retail items. Thirty-eight states impose no tax on food.

The only higher tax on food than Mississippi’s 7 percent tax can be found in most areas of Alabama where state law allows local governments to impose their own grocery tax. The combination of the state and local taxes can make the levy on food as much as 9 percent in parts of Alabama.

The Hood campaign says it is still developing its proposal on reducing the tax on food.

Key elements to take into account is how to deal with replacing the revenue to the state and cities that would be lost with the food tax cut. The state already is dealing with what will be a loss of more than $700 million in revenue from the more than 50 tax cuts passed during the last eight sessions.

In 2006 it was estimated that the tax on food generated about $346 million – about $50 million of that was rebated to the cities.

Hood says his plan would ensure the cities “will be kept whole.”

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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